Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson made a deliberate and smart speech-making choice last week when he started off the annual state-of-the-city event at Memorial Hall. “When I sat down to think about what I wanted to say in this ‘State of the City’ address, a lot of ideas rushed through my head,” he began. “But let’s face it— there’s only one topic on everybody’s mind, and that’s: the economy, jobs and getting people back to work.”

Rather than jam-pack his remarks by trying to cover every topic, success, initiative, and city program, he homed in on one over-arching focus of his administration… which also has the added advantage of being the No. 1 issue Californians want their elected leaders to focus on (63 percent of Californians named the economy their top issue in a December PPIC poll).

But we are waist-deep in the season for state of the city and state of the county speeches, and so far not too many mayors and supervisors are following Johnson’s example. If we are to divine the state of California’s municipalities based on speeches given so far, they would fall into three general categories:

  • The Workaday Speech: Supervisor Allen Ishida in Tulare delivered his state of the county speech with little fanfare, aiming his remarks apparently at the same people who regularly pay attention to board of supervisors meetings. He focused on mostly pedestrian topics including water needs, and jail capacity, briefly outlining the upcoming workaday tasks of the county staff. To Ishida’s credit, he did spend a few minutes talking about economic development goals; however, out-of-work Tulare county residents did not hear hopes for jobs, they heard a county plan for the creation of an economic development-focused Web site.
  • The Off-Topic Speech: In Santa Clara County, Board of Supervisors President George Shirakawa’s speech felt a little out of step with issues facing most counties and voters. He decided to focus almost entirely on social service programs — from reducing kids’ intake of sugary soft drinks to focusing on Latinos’ health care issues and senior nutrition. He made no news; a local paper in fact reduced the 22-page speech to a short blurb of fewer than 200 words.
  • The Farewell Speech: I advised on this site last month that mayors should “be careful not to present your annual state of the city speech as a public opinion poll on your job performance … This speech is neither about your satisfaction with the job of mayor nor (hopefully) residents’ satisfaction with your performance.” But you have to give Mayor Ron Loveridge a little bit of a pass, because his January 19 speech was his 19th and last, capping off 32 years in public service in Riverside. He dipped back to 1979, summarizing how the city has grown and changed over that period of time. There is one cautionary tale from Loveridge’s speech, however: the dreaded list. Toward the end of his remarks, Loveridge offered “ten challenges for Riverside’s future.” In listing topics from economic prosperity to K-12 education and downtown vitality, he rightly said that “how we respond to these challenges, what decisions we make will define our city for decades ahead.” But then Loveridge offered no solutions or paths for tackling those challenges.

That’s another area in which Johnson set a standard in his speech in Sacramento: he offered three distinct initiatives he would pursue in his focus on jobs and economic development. He will continue to fight for a new arena for the Kings basketball team, even starting a $10 million fundraising effort. He will work to lure green-tech businesses to Sacramento — dubbing the region the “Emerald Valley.” And he will push for improved education in the city by starting a report card program to grade the performance of local schools. Those are concrete goals that set the tone for the coming year for the public, city staff, and for his own daily agenda.

Mayors and supervisors who have yet to deliver their annual speeches would do well to follow Johnson’s lead.

Barker is a writer and political advisor at